David is a paunchy, failed poet, failed artist and failed novelist in his mid-30s doing a dead-end English-teaching job by day and writing a bitterly negative blog by night. He lives in London with his fit, handsome, 23 year old flat mate, Glover, who is a naive, devout Christian and a virgin. David meets up with his former art teacher, Ruth, who is now a glamorous, hugely successful, bisexual, 47 year old New York-based artist. David wants Ruth, but Ruth wants Glover. So, there we have lots of ingredients for a great novel. We have a love triangle. We have religion vs a bohemian art scene. We have plenty of opposites attracting. We have two flat mates who lend easily to lad-lit humour. We have the London/New York Art Scene which lends easily to cutting satire. We have a misanthropic opinionated man approaching a mid-life crisis. And Laird shapes all this around a basic plot of how David turns surprisingly nasty to sabotage the blossoming relationship between Glover and Ruth.
The set up is good, although perhaps a little artificial. Laird lays down plenty of acute, often humorous, observations about all of the above themes, with particularly strong observations on Art and some neat lines on love itself being not fit for purpose in the 20th Century. These are by far the best bits of the novel. His prose is generally "good", never outstanding, but frequently it is terribly off-key.
For example, he describes blood as being "acid red", when of course, the most potent common acids are clear, like water. But if acid has to be associated with a colour, why not green? On another occasion, a character "claws" his mobile phone out of his pocket. I don't think I've ever seen that happen.
And he describes a box of chocolate as being "shrink-wrapped". Of course chocolates are never "shrink-wrapped", they are just "wrapped" in plastic, but I can just see Laird sitting at his desk thinking (wrongly) that that is not descriptive enough - that more adjectives is better than less. That, unfortunately applies to a lot of the phrases and descriptions that Laird employs. He uses more because he seems afraid of using less.
Laird also flounders somewhat when it comes to painting the characters and also flounders on the very aim of the novel. The novel is high above lad-lit, but well short of a rounded Art World satire, and hardly very much of a love-triangle thriller. With so much to try to work into his canvas, and so few pages to do it, Laird fails to give Glover any depth at all. Ruth is a little better drawn, but is still very much a two dimensional caricature of a bohemian egotistical artist.
There is a good array of bit-parters, each of whom is introduced by Laird solely for the purpose of satire, and it has to be said that all the bit-parters wear their satire just right, and add plenty of humour and allow Laird to make some of his wonderful observations. But that doesn't make up for the lack of depth in two parts of the central trinity. As a character, David saves and pretty much carries the centre of the novel. He is complex, contradictory and unpleasant. David is driven by a desire for love and for acceptance by/purpose in society, something we can identify with, but his blog, the Damp Review, is full of acerbic negativity (even to the extent of a rejection of the very idea of love itself), and this reflects his attitude to life, and perhaps also explains why he has got nowhere in life. He even writes negative reviews of Ruth's work when he is supposed to be her friend, but this appears to be driven by his bitterness at her love of Glover. And of course there is the whole moral mire of the love triangle itself. David plots and schemes to break up Ruth and Glover.
Laird seems to want the reader to question David's motive and methods and ends (means justifying ends, etc) and the novel's ending is left satisfyingly open. Was Glover really mistaken to fall in love with a woman old enough to be his mother? Is David a hero for saving Glover from his "mistake"? Or is David an anti-hero - just a sad bitter villain? I suspect that in the end Laird is saying - "Look, the journey with David may have been unpleasant, but did you disagree with all of his/my observations?"
Overall, it seems that Laird is a skillful modern observer and would have been quite capable of engaging the reader with a novel about art, about lads in London or about a love triangle, but he appears to have made a mistake in trying to bring together these three themes (and others) on an inadequate canvas of less than 250 pages. I suspect that a 500 page novel would have worked a lot better, but maybe that would have missed some sectors of the market that Laird wanted to reach. There are plenty of brilliant bits in these 250 pages, and it is worth reading, but as a 250 page novel it left me a little unsatisfied.